12 ideas for a better future
© The Seacleaners
From combatting plastic to growing mushrooms from disused coffee and transforming household insulation, we take a closer look at 12 projects aiming to make positive changes in the world.
Published on Innovator
1. Cleaning up the ocean
Swiss sailor Yvan Bourgnon spent 23 days at sea when he landed in Normandy on June 23, 2015. He'd won a bet to become the first man to successfully circumnavigate the globe on a catamaran without a cabin or the use of GPS. Happy to be home, the 48-year-old was dismayed by what he had seen on his voyage: filthy seas and plastic waste as far as the eye could see.
When he sailed around the world as a child with his family for four years in the early 1980s, plastic waste in the sea was still the exception rather than the rule and the seas have changed drastically in the intervening decades. So, Bourgnon decided to act and founded SeaCleaners with the mission of ridding the ocean of plastic.
At the heart of that is a €35m (US$38.3m) quadrimaran, the Manta. At 70m long, 49m wide and 61m high, the prototype will be finalised before the end of 2019. The plan is to set sail in 2023 with the aim of collecting up to 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste every year. Some will be incinerated on board to generate energy for the vessel, the rest pressed into one-cubic-metre packages and brought ashore to be recycled. Financed by sponsors, the aim is to analyse the waste to identify the polluters and shock people into action.
More information: theseacleaners.org
2. Fast-track plastic recycling
Plastic takes about 500 years to decompose. Now scientists at the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology in Tulln are trying to speed that process up using protein molecules to trigger biochemical reactions. ACIB’s Doris Ribitsch believes it can revolutionise recycling: “Under special lab conditions, we’ve been able to accelerate the process massively. About 20 percent of the plastic has been decomposed within 24 hours.”
These enzymes occur naturally and decompose things like your garden waste or else the food in your stomach. Ribitsch continues: “We have to develop and modify natural enzymes so that they decompose plastic better and faster”. First the enzymes bind to polymers, ie plastics, then they cut them into individual parts like scissors. From these building blocks, something new can then develop: that’s how recycling works.
The experience and expertise of the Tulln scientists in this field are shared by no more than a handful of research groups around the world. Waste management, the textile and automotive industries and plastics manufacturers are already benefitting from their know-how.
More information: acib.at
3. The robot giving you a lift
Cray X may not look like a robot but, in essence, it acts as an exoskeleton which knows when you have to lift something. German Bionic CEO Armin G Schmidt explains: “You put it on like a rucksack. After a few minutes it feels completely normal, its numerous sensors and two motors detecting when it’s time to get down to business and enabling its user lift up to 25kg. Schmidt adds: “It relieves the strain on the lower back. It’s like it’s pulling you up”.
In time, the Cray X power suit, which took six years to develop, gradually learns its user every day and thereby adapts to his or her body. New on the market since 2018 at a cost of €4,990 (US$5460) with a monthly usage fee, Armin says, “With the exoskeleton, you can compensate for weak points or carry out certain activities for longer.”
Porsche CEO Oliver Blume said it best when he handed over the German Entrepreneur Award to German Bionic: it’s making hard work “more humane, sustainable and easier”.
More information: germanbionic.com
4. Saving the world with mushrooms
The Viennese coffee house is synonymous with the European city’s culture, but two men are taking the Austrian capital’s love of coffee by using coffee grounds for vegetable growth in their basement.
Manuel Bornbaum and Florian Hofer, both 31, found coffee grounds were an ideal breeding soil for mushrooms, so developed a business model on that premise. Bornbaum says: “The fact that mushrooms have an extremely small CO² footprint and hardly need any water also fascinated us. In our initial euphoria, we thought, ‘That’s crazy! You can save the world with mushrooms!’ Today we know that we can at least make a contribution.”
Over a 400 sq m basement, they cultivate 300kg of oyster mushrooms a week using two tonnes of discarded coffee grounds from hotels, restaurant and retirement homes, mixing them with mushroom mycelium and lime. In turn, the fungi make their way onto supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.
More information: hutundstiel.at
5. A breath of fresh air
In 2017, Walter Kreisel, the CEO of W&Kreisel which produces sustainable energy generation and control systems, was drinking ice-cold water from a bottle on holiday when he had a brainwave about how to combat water shortages. He recruited Manfred Ledermüller to develop a machine to extract water from air.
Phantor is the outcome of that vision, a gigantic water generator powered by clean electricity and, controlled by intuitive software, the container-sized system sucks in air. This air meets artificially generated cold air inside to extract water. This can then be used either directly for irrigation in farming, as an admixture for building materials or, after filtering and mineralisation in the machine, as drinking water making up to 10,000l of water a day.
“Our system is modular and can respond to individual needs,” says Kreisel. “Clean drinking water is the starting point for any development and two billion people currently have insufficient access to it”. The first of the mostly maintenance-free machines goes operational at the turn of the year.
More information: wkreisel.com
6. Cable-free car charging
Say goodbye to tangled cables when charging your electric vehicle and dismiss the idea of robots being the feature of charging up your car. The Austrian company Easelink has come up with a revolutionary charging alternative which saves space, is robust, cost effective, easy to install and, perhaps most crucially, can be driven over.
Matrix Charging consists of two main components: a pad and a connector. The pad measures 50x58cm and is connected to the mains power while the connector is fitted in the base plate of the electric vehicle. When it drive over the plate, an automatic connection is made and charging begins.
While not in mainstream production just yet, testing has proved successful with the charging system expected to cost €600 to €2,220 (US$660 – 2,410 ), about the same as a conventional charging system in a wall, and discussions are already ongoing with the automotive industry about it hitting the market in 2021.
More information: easelink.com
7. Winds of change
Wind turbines have long been a feature of the modern landscape but now you too can generate your own power with smaller versions for your home. Just 1.8m tall, they weigh 175kg and need to be assembled with eight screws. Five fibreglass-reinforced injection-moulded blades – each just 45cm long and able to survive even hurricane-like gusts of 140kph – catch the wind and power the generator.
As for the noise, “it’s like a barely audible whisper in a pine forest,” says Herbert Gösweiner, CEO of Blue Power which developed the BlueOne mini turbines. The first have been installed and no official permission is required to set them up. They cost around €4,850 (US$5,300), plus minimal costs for installation and integration in the home.
“Within seven to 13 years, the system will pay for itself,” adds Gösweiner, whose company has been working on the development for nearly a decade. “In a favourable location, a wind turbine can even cover up to 75 percent of the energy requirements of the average household.” It plans to sell a thousand turbines a year.
More information: bluepower.at
8. Playing the market
Theresa Imre grew up with two grandmothers who liked to cook with pickled fruit and vegetables from the garden in front of their house. Such an upbringing makes the impersonal choice of a supermarket hard to stomach. So, the 28-year-old created an online platform bringing regional producers together for high-quality food to meet the taste of city dwellers.
Digital farmer’s market markta opened two years ago and already has 3,000 products from 400 different manufacturers delivered to four central collection points in Vienna or else straight to your front door. Imre, previously a food blogger, says: “For many regional companies, it’s impossible to meet the terms of trade. Our aim is to offer our customers alternatives to mass-produced produce in supermarkets.”
Sustainability and environmental awareness are a priority ranging from testing package insulation made from sheep’s wool to delivery by bicycle, with a view to tackling wider Europe in due course.
More information: markta.at
9. Brain training
“Everyone should be happy with their brain,” says Philipp Heiler, a trained doctor who founded the company brainboost in Munich with his younger brother, sports scientist Tobias. And the Heilers are using technology to change brain function. As Philipp puts it: “Training teaches you to change the way your brain works."
A cap with between four and 20 electrodes is put on, which records your brain waves and forwards them to a computer. From there brainboost create a training programme and live analysis is done as neuro-feedback in the form of a reward for the brain when certain areas are activated. For example, conscious relaxation can power a toy car to drive or other brain activity can turn the volume up on a stereo.
The brain loves rewards, so subconsciously tries to recognise patterns. It takes 15 to 30 one-hour sessions – in the company’s Munich headquarters at €89 (US$97) – in order for the brain to view life with a new, better and happier perspective.
More information: brainboost.de
10. Driving made fun
The three men at holoride know how to get around: Daniel Profendiner has written algorithms for self-driving cars, Marcus Kühne has developed over 100 patent solutions for Audi and CEO Nils Wollny is regarded as an exceptional talent in the digital industry. The trio, who met at Audi, had the idea of turning car rides into something fun for passengers.
An on-board computer and VR glasses are connected via WiFi or Bluetooth and the ride becomes part of the game. “Our technology can ‘read’ data from the car on its position, acceleration and cornering,” says Wollny. To put it simply, if the car moves to the left, your dinosaur will move in the same direction. If you stop at a zebra crossing, a bright blue chicken walks over it.
Incoming precipitation – detected by the rain sensor – could pelt your spaceship in the form of a meteor shower. The connecting software was developed by the holoride team and the content is provided by Hollywood studios. “We’re initially focusing on entertainment,” said Wollny. “But I see great potential for educational content – and it’s also conceivable that video conferences will be held.”
More information: holoride.com
11. Robots to the rescue
WeRobotics are a non-profit organisation based in Switzerland and the United States, using a global network of experts to solve social and ecological problems with robotics. Currently specialising in drones, they aim to implement such solutions in developing countries.
For example, medicines can be transported to remote areas by drone but cost-effectively and in an environmentally-friendly fashion. The use of drones has already been used to halt the spread of dengue fever in Fiji last year by distributing virus-resistant mosquitoes.
In India, drones were used to update maps in the wake of the May hurricanes. WeRobotics CEO Sonja Betschart, who founded the organisation in 2015 with Patrick Meier and Andrew Schroeder, says: “This data is better than satellite images and a hugely important basis for aid organisations on the ground.” The trio have proved a game changer with assignments in 23 countries across Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania.
More information: werobotics.org
12. Rising from the ashes
It is estimated that 97 percent of all buildings in Europe are not sufficiently insulated. Now, a Zurich start-up has invented a patented insulating material for buildings made of ash foam. Etienne Jeoffory of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich says the majority of materials that are currently used “burn like tinder”. But he adds: “We also need high insulation quality, low costs and sustainability.”
FenX, launched in May, has developed a fire-proof, 100 percent recyclable material which weighs about the same as polystyrene and is made up of waste ash to form a porous foam.
While the more common insulators fibreglass and rock wool are produced at very high temperatures, this new material can be created at room temperature almost anywhere in the world and keeps both CO² emissions and costs low. FenX estimates the market for this new insulating material at over €20b (US$21.9b) worldwide.
More information: fenx.ch